The Names You Choose Mean More Today Than Ever Before

Oct 28th 2010

The title of this column may seem like puffery, but I mean it very literally. Baby names carry more meaning now than in generations past. And all the time that today's parents spend fretting over the perfect name? They're not just obsessive, they're responding to a new reality. I can prove it.

I've talked before about a revolution in the way Americans name their babies. It started in the 1960s, when individuality was elevated to a prized cultural virtue. More parents started looking for names that stood out, rather than fitting in. It accelerated with the new media and information landscape of the '90s. Internet searches, unique user names, and 300 cable channels all upped the ante on finding a distinctive name. Bit by bit, the core classic English names that ruled for centuries began to disappear. They left behind a wild and woolly world where there's no such thing as a normal name.

That's the bird's eye view. What might not be obvious is the revolution's impact on an individual name, and an individual name-hunting parent. With the change in naming culture, your name choice carries more information; it means more.

Let's use clothing as an analogy. Imagine a company where employees are expected to wear gray or blue suits to work. If you see a guy wearing a gray suit in that office, what does it tell you about him as an individual? Not much. Now imagine another company with an anything-goes dress code. Couldn't you read more about an employee from his outfit there? And wouldn't the same gray suit mean a lot more in that environment?

Similarly, the more diverse the names around us, the more each name choice means. Back in the 1950s, "normal" really was the norm. The top 25 boy's names and the top 50 girl's names accounted for half of babies born. That meant that the typical child received a name that was very broadly used, so the name didn't communicate much about the family that chose it. (Gregory, George, Kathy, and Denise were typical/median names.)

Today, you have to include 134 boy's names to reach the midpoint of babies, and a whopping 320 names for girls. Names around the median now include Giovanni, Collin, Cody and Kayden for boys; Kyleigh, Ximena, Paisley, and Juliet for girls. Similarly, the 75th percentile of rarity has moved from Fred (rank: #93) to Giancarlo (rank: #677). There is no more naming "dress code," and so the names we wear speak volumes.

You can quantify this rise in meaning. (Serious stats coming up! If you want more methodological background, see these additional research notes.) In the field of information theory, a measure called Shannon entropy is used to describe the information contained in a message. The more diverse and unpredictable a message, the more information it holds. Think of how a photograph of a real-life scene, with all of its subtle colors and shapes, makes for a far larger file than a same-sized solid color block.

I calculated the entropy for the distribution of American baby names at five-year intervals over the past 125 years. Here's the full graph, for scale and reference:

 The Amount of Information Carried by Given Names

Now I'm going to zoom in for discussion:

Name Entropy Closeup

Notice how the curve starts accelerating in the '60s and speeds up again in the '90s. Name entropy, or the information carried by names, has risen as much in the past 25 years as it did in the full century before that. (It's not just a function of the number of babies born, either. See the research notes for more.)

This is the statistical underpinning of the practical reality we sense as parents. Choosing a name is a fraught, consequential process today.

Remember that company where you could wear anything you wanted to work? Imagine meeting three guys in that office. One's in an oxford shirt and baggy khakis. The next is dressed like an H&M model. The third is wearing a t-shirt with a "Far Side" comic strip that he bought in 1992. It's not just that you CAN glean information from those fashion choices -- you DO, automatically.

It's the same with names. As the cultural information conveyed by names grows richer, people process that information, often without even thinking about it. Or to put it another way, the more names have to tell us, the more we learn to listen.

So if you're obsessing over baby names, you're not crazy. In a world where babies are as likely to be named Elijah and Serenity as John and Mary, even John and Mary send powerful signals that the public is primed to receive.


October 30, 2010 2:09 PM

Speaking of celebrity baby names, there are Celine Dion's twins, Nelson and Eddy. Nelson Eddy, seriously....what was she thinking???

By kmac77 (not verified)
October 30, 2010 2:59 PM

I'm just a casual reader of the comments here, though I always read Laura's blog... I was hoping someone could tell me then about the reason behind, in the comments, people using @ for a, 3 for e, etc in names? I'm really just curious about it. Thanks :)

October 30, 2010 3:06 PM

JB: Eve Augusta is lovely. I really like more interesting middle names like that.

Miriam: Eddy and Nelson is after Nelson Mandela and a producer named Eddy I-can't-remember-his-surname-to save-my-life who was like a father to Celine. It's hard to be against name sake names. Eddy and Nelson are kind of growing on me, I think they fit in with Billy and Larry boyish type names. But her son Rene-Charles doesn't fit in to that at all.

October 30, 2010 3:10 PM

kmac77: I used to wonder about it too. It's coding, so if people with unique names google themselves/ are googled they don't wind up here. It's for privacy basically.

Either that, or creative spellers have gone crazy.

October 30, 2010 3:10 PM

Yes, Awkward Turtle, I was aware of the namesakes, but the two names together....

October 30, 2010 3:49 PM

Miriam and Awkward Turtle, I wrote about the Celine Dion twin names yesterday on NameCandy.

Nelson eddy was my first thought, too. But in terms of being a "match" for Rene-Charles, tehy are all namesakes, so that is the theme.

October 31, 2010 6:02 AM

Miriam: Sorry, I didn't know about Nelson Eddy. (I feel so uninformed) Maybe a subconcious tribute?

October 31, 2010 11:40 AM

Awkward Turtle, my first thought was Nelson Eddy, oh, my! My second thought was that she could name her next set of twins Gene and Kelly.

October 31, 2010 2:14 PM

thought you all might be interested in this:

on changing naming practices in iraq

October 31, 2010 4:09 PM

RobynT: That's really interesting. I never thought about people sharing names with dictators etc. from their countries.

Miriam: Then the next could be Gilbert and Sullivan. :p

October 31, 2010 5:23 PM

Miriam and Akward Turtle-Gilbert and Sullivan is great :p Though I'm guessing Roger and Hammerstein wouldn't really work too well now would it. LOL!

By occasional visitor (not verified)
October 31, 2010 8:47 PM

Re: Ivo, FWIW, in the tv adaptation of the "Brother Cadfael" mysteries, the name Ivo was pronounced Eye-voh.

Kit for Katharine is great. My favorite nicknames are Kay and Katya.

By Larksong nli (not verified)
November 1, 2010 10:37 AM

Hi Everyone !!! I hope that everyone is well

I need some name help desperately !

Can anybody think of some NICKNAMES for the male name RIAAN (said REE-aan like the 'a' in y''yarn'' . The 'a' is said more like the Brits & is NOT like the American 'a' for apple). It's MUCH more similar to the word ''on'' than the -aan ending sounding like ''an.'' Hope that isn't too confusing

Or, some endearments/nicknames that you can come up with for him

He is :
very gentle
nice guy
old-fashioned (old-school type guy)
likes to read
likes cars/bikes
is laid back
God-fearing . He loves God & is a really dedicated Christian
Witty/has dry sense of humour

It's currently too soon to use endearments like ''Honey'' or ''sweetie'' at this stage .
The nickname is actually for my relative & it's for someone that she is seeing . He calls her things like Lovely, Miss Petite or Little One etc .

PLEASE please PLEASE if you guys& girls can help us - we'd be incredible appreciative !

He doesn't have a middle name

Thanks !

By Larksong nli (not verified)
November 1, 2010 10:39 AM

@ Laura Wattenberg

Great article !

And I forgot to say - the nicknames are quite urgent ! Please help

Thanks :)

November 1, 2010 12:40 PM

Larksong-We haven't heard from you in a bit so welcome back! Regarding your dilemma, first of all for any still confused by the pronunciation I would venture that it rhymes with Leon except with an R. On the nn thing, I am a bit stumped. It would seem there is no direct nn to be derived from that name. If he is up to the stage of calling her Lovely then I understand her wanting to return the gesture though. I am wondering if there are any RE- words such as Re-lax that would fit appropriately. Maybe Ward as in RE-ward or Al as in " Are you for Re-al"? LOL That's the best I can do right now.

November 1, 2010 12:58 PM

Larksong- sounds like a nicknameless name. Maybe he has physical attributes that could be used? (e.g. Red if he has red hair) Are there any famous characters in books he has similarities? If he has a surname like McDonald you could call him Mac, I suppose. Umm... Could his job make a good name? I'm not sure how helpful this is.

By Larksong nli (not verified)
November 1, 2010 1:34 PM

@@Zoerhenne & Awkward Turtle

Hi & thanks for the help ! We do REALLY appreciate it

The pronunciation is hectic to create because I'm trying to work out how to Americanise the pronunciation . I'm like ''accent-translating'' lol.

Riaan actually comes from Adrian - but the Afrikaans version. His full first name is Riaan. Basically, try to imagine the word ''on'' where the 'n' is stressed and the ''a'' sound is like the ''a'' in the word ''yarn'' (without the y).
Or, just say it - but the stress the ''a'' & say it like a Brit's ''a''
............. and now I am probably making matters worse .... oi !

Zoerhenne, you are actually pretty close with the Leon -- just stress an elongated a-ish sound in there... but you get enough of it to help !

Physically he is tallish & very thin .
It's a bit difficult with the book/movie thing - though that is a really good idea! I don;t know if this helps - but we're all very Christianey & so is he. He also has a very dry, sharp sense of humour

We've though of McKnight (the Knight thing is a joke within the family) , but.... he doesn't watch a lot of tv/movies & wouldn't catch the Grey's Anatomy pun

What are nicknames that are like the pre-''Darling'' endearment phase. My relative said that ''Darling'' would have been perfect and ''Sweetie' is also good - but that it is a bit too forward now. A nickname is wanted because he some for her i.e. Little One ( she is TINY) , Miss Petite , Dizzy (she is always on the go ) & Lovely so far .... what would be the male equivalent?

Oh. and his surname is heavily 'r' concentrated as well

The only thing that I can come up with at the moment is to use the meaning of his name i.e. Phoebe means 'shining' so Phoebe would Shining as a nn (going according to the ''Lovely'' nn)

His surname means ''iron''.... but, he's skinny ... so , Mr Muscle Man stuff doesn't apply (hope that doesn't condescending) lol

Anyway, any & all input is appreciated

By EVie
November 1, 2010 2:27 PM

Larksong - maybe it would help to think about it in terms of what their relationship is like—are they a silly, playful couple, or more serious and romantic? My DH and I are pretty silly, and tend to call each other "cutie." (He already goes by a nickname for his full name, so there's nothing special about using it—he sometimes calls me by a nickname, but one that my whole family has used all my life). In a past relationship I used "sweetie." A few other couples I know call each other "babe," which I think sounds a bit more cool. If he's using nicknames like "Lovely," she could do the male equivalent, "Handsome" (like, "hey there, Handsome"). If they're open to silliness, she could do something like "Loverboy," or if he's really romantic she could use a reference like "Lancelot" or "Romeo" (although that might come across as mocking, if he's at all sensitive). It's actually really hard to come up with a good recommendation without knowing the person, since people have such varying levels of sensitivity, and with some men especially you have to be really careful to not call their masculinity into question.

November 1, 2010 3:41 PM

Larksong-It is also hard to give ideas because nn's are such a personal thing. Like with the name Benjamin, some may like Benji but others cannot stomach it at all and go to either Ben or Jammers or like Eo with Banks. Anyway, when I think tall/lanky I think cowboy. Would that work? Cowboys sometimes come to the "rescue" of damsels in distress so maybe that is appropriate.
I think most of the time I have used nn's of endearment they have kind of just evolved. I go from calling the person's name to something like darling or honey after a while. I'm not sure there has been a middle stage for me.

November 1, 2010 3:46 PM

So all my name angst finally has a person to focus on. We're not telling people in real life yet but I couldn't resist sharing with you guys. Top boys names are Elias, Louis, Nicholas, and Jude. Top girls names are Theresa (or Teresa), Mary and Marie. Sarah, Lucy and Grace also have potential.

November 1, 2010 6:42 PM

Congrats another Laura!!! exciting for another regular to have a bub to name :) When are you due?

November 1, 2010 8:12 PM

another Laura-Looks like you've done a great job of narrowing it down. Thanks for sharing.
Fwiw, my favorite combos are these (in no particular order):
Lucy Marie
Theresa Mary
Sarah Lucille
Sarah Grace
Lucy Grace

Louis Elijah
Nicholas Jude
Jude Nicholas
Jude Elias

By Rjoy (not verified)
November 1, 2010 8:24 PM

Congratulations Laura! I love how you made your announcement. :)

Are you looking for more suggestion in that genre or are you pretty set on your list?

Larksong- This is a very difficult thing to do for a person that we haven't met. If there a reason she is having trouble other than such a difficult name? I would suggest she just stick with the classics for now. I personally like Babe-shore, sweet, and somehow..(somehow?) still masculine. Also, since he calls her lovely. He sounds like such a gentlemen. What about just Gent?

November 1, 2010 9:53 PM

Chimu - I just tested positive so I'm not due until like July 12th although I've always gone early so more likely end of June. After Mother's Day which is awesome.

It's nice to share with everyone here. Since we have older kids this time I feel like we have to be more cautious about telling people IRL too soon otherwise their whole elementary school will know by weeks end.

Rjoy - I'm not saying I'm set on my list. But, I've been working on the list for the past year so I don't think there are too many names that I haven't considered. There are other names that I like that dh has ruled out (like Ruth) so I guess he could have a change of heart on those. My goal is to work on my list until we know the gender and then settle on a name.

I really want to use Lawrence or Elias in our next boy's name as it my dad's name and Lawrence is dh's middle name as well. But, dh seems mostly uninterested in most of the names I've suggested (especially if they're out of the top 50) but he seems to really like Louis. (DH doesn't really seem interested in using family names and only our youngest daughter has family names)

I'm looking forward to bouncing ideas off you guys.

By Larksong nli (not verified)
November 2, 2010 2:07 AM

@another Laura

Congrats & the best of wishes to you ! I wish you a happy, fun-naming journey!

Gent is a good one :) Darling/Sweetie & those those types of endearments are all perfect - but she feels like it's too soon/forward for her to use them at this stage. Also, I think Babe might be out because that is what an ex called her, if I remember correctly.

It's actually ironic, because Riaan is a REALLY popular name by us & the possible nn's she doesn't like i.e. Ree,Riri, Aan ,Aanie etc


Good idea EVie ! I actually suggested Lancelot lol ! It's really true about trying to come up with a nickname for someone you don't know & the whole sensitivity issue

Never thought of the cowboy theme before!

I think she might just have to let them evolve on their own.

But, if you ladies& guys (was so tempted to say guys & dolls there) have ANY more comments/ideas/suggestions - please do say so!The input is appreciated

November 2, 2010 10:28 AM

Another Laura-My apologies and congratulations. I thought you ALREADY were expecting because I've heard you talk about these names previously. It's easy to get mixed up between the posts on this board. I will stand by for the gender announcement.

November 2, 2010 10:35 AM

Laura W-Thinking about how many babies have been born to posters on this blog lately. Is there a way to have a list/database of just the first names that have been used? Would that be too invasive to all of you? I just think it would be interesting to see and compare to the celebrity list/database on NameCandy.

By Amy3
November 2, 2010 1:24 PM

@another Laura, congratulations! Of the names you listed, I like Elias and Jude best for a boy and Mary and Theresa (either spelling) for a girl. Good luck with your pregnancy!

November 2, 2010 1:41 PM

zoerhenne - I can see how you might have thought I was pregnant already. My other 4 were all 2 years apart so I honestly expected to be pregnant a year ago but obviously that didn't happen. I'm thrilled to be pregnant now and of course I've gotten a major headstart on the naming process =)

By Sharalyn (not verified)
November 2, 2010 1:43 PM

@ PennyX -- I love most of your names, but am partial to Everett James. I don't even know what, but it struck a chord with me.

When I hear Soren, I think Guardians of Ga'Hoole ( It's not a bad association, but my son is just getting into the books, and the movie just came out, so it's in my head.

By Sharalyn (not verified)
November 2, 2010 1:43 PM

@ PennyX -- I love most of your names, but am partial to Everett James. I don't even know what, but it struck a chord with me.

When I hear Soren, I think Guardians of Ga'Hoole ( It's not a bad association, but my son is just getting into the books, and the movie just came out, so it's in my head.

November 2, 2010 2:07 PM

Another Laura, congratulations! I know you probably don't want opinions yet, but I prefer Grace and Marie as first names.

November 2, 2010 2:56 PM

Awkward Turtle - me too! I'm also hesitant to use a favorite name in the middle spot as we hope to have more children after this one. That's why Elias Jude is unlikely as I wouldn't want to "use" Jude up in the middle spot. I think Theresa/Teresa is the leading candidate for a girl and since I've wanted to honor Mary that (or Marie) would make sense as a middle name but then I've given up the possibility of using them as first names later.

Those names I listed were the candidates for first names. Both names don't have to come from that list. For example if we go with Elias (which is my dad's mn) will use John as a mn (which is fil fn). I also like the connection between John the Baptist and Elijah. John isn't an option for a fn as we have a nephew John already. Jude and Nicholas would both have Lawrence as a mn. Really not sure of mn for Louis. I thought zoerhenne's idea of Louis Elijah was a great idea but then I run into the problem of not wanting to give up on Elias for a future son.

By hyz nli (not verified)
November 2, 2010 3:47 PM

Hey guys, thanks for all the congratulations! I've been having a hard time getting to the computer still, but I read all your sweet words and appreciate them. :)

NAMG, congrats on little Sylvia, too! You know I looove that name, and I hope your babymooning is going well!

Another Laura, congratulations on your positive!! FWIW, I think Elias John is just gorgeous!

By Eo (not verified)
November 2, 2010 4:49 PM

Your news is wonderful, another Laura! I am very partial to all the names on your boys' list. I also like both Theresa (with the "h" it has a very "finished", distinguished look), and Mary is a real sleeper of a traditional name-- it is now an under-used classic, with a myriad of great nicknames...

Looking forward to your return, hyz!

Larksong, great to have you back! Your relative's new friend sounds nifty. Since I always like the nickname to sort of grow "organically" out of the actual given name, I would be more likely to derive it directly from "Riaan".

Therefore, I would like "Reed", or would the spelling "Riid" or something like that be more appropriate in South Africa? And Reed suggests someone slender and adaptable and flexible, as a bonus! Other old English spellings: Rede, Read-- all have been English surnames.

Another nickname which could plausibly grow out of Riann would be "Reeve", a name I've always liked. And it carries the meaning of "chief magistrate", or "overseer" which has dignity and a special appeal to those of us steeped in Judeo-Christian culture like this young man, I think...

By katec (not verified)
November 2, 2010 6:51 PM

FWIW I'm a 40-something Katherine who was called Katy until I decided at age 5-6 that I wanted to be more grown up and started to call myself Kate.

At high school my best friend was Janaline and we used to call each other Jim and Kit. I wish I'd stuck to Kit more firmly but I drifted back to Kate! I loved the androgeny of it and also the kind of Elizabethan quality - I think Kit has a real kick to it and makes a fabulous nn.

November 2, 2010 7:04 PM

another Laura - I'm very partial to Theresa and think it goes well with your surname, despite your reservations. I also like Sarah with your other kids names. You were considering Anne-Marie too? I think that is lovely.

For boys I really like Eliah or Louis for you, very nice!

November 2, 2010 9:30 PM

Ok, so any of you who wish to amuse yourselves, I've been thinking about my boy name list. Unlike with girls names I don't have a small group of definite 'must haves'. The following are on my short(ish) list but they haven't been approved by my husband yet. Any comments/thoughts/opinions?

In no particular order:

November 3, 2010 1:08 AM

another Laura-I remember now that you had some other mn's in mind. I just have so much fun putting together combos. I also like Jude Lawrence as well.

Eo-You ARE the queen of nn's. Reed is fabulous!

chimu-I would love to play. I've been waiting patiently for you to be ready to throw so finalists (or atleast semi-finalists) out into the ring. From your previous round of thoughts, you had Alasdair, Cormac, August, Silas, and Caspar all in the fn spots. I can post combos if you like. I still like all of those as they sound distinguished yet not unheard of. Soren (see previous comments) is NMS. Love Vaughn. Eamon is okay but not as good as some of the others. Balendin is a little out there for me.

Don't know if you also wanted to throw out the others you had on your list to your dh, but they were Theodore (too popular now?), Sterling (I still like), Desmond (reminds me of Tutu), Finnegan (again too popular?), and Dashiell (too Incredibles Disney movie??).

By Rhodolady (not verified)
November 3, 2010 2:44 AM

Larksong - re:nicknames... I know a couple who called each other Face. It was from My Fair Lady, I think ("I'm accustomed to her face"). I really liked it!

November 3, 2010 6:12 AM

Zoerhenne, always happy to have your input!

I think I'm not as keen on Theodore anymore for a FN. I still like Sterling but think it would get shortened to Sterlo here :( Finnegan is my favourite of the Finn names but a friend just had a Finn so that makes it harder. Finn versions are a bit too popular for me too. Dahiell I like mostly for the nn Dash think. All of them are good for mn options. Plenty of other mn options in my profile for those who want to play.

November 3, 2010 7:45 AM

Chimus - My top from your list is Silas. I also like Cormac, Vaughn and August.

November 3, 2010 8:42 AM

:) Chimu glad to help. My favs from before are:
Caspar August Vaughn
Cormac John Hugo
Silas Theodore Vaughn/ Silas John Vaughn

EDIT: Just looked at your profile page and also have to add Lucian Gideon Piers as one I really like.

November 3, 2010 10:12 AM

I have a new cousin! Her name is Christina Elisa, born last night. Big brother is Felipe and big sister is Viviana. Yipee!

I like Cormac, Soren, and Eamon best from your list. I had to read Balendin twice, because the first time I saw "blend in".

Fun names from newly registered students in the classes I coordinate: Tolulope, Barbara (you don't hear that much on a young person these days), Tarndeep, Carmel, Eunhye, Megan, Meghan, Meghan, Mandrill, Charita, Brittany, Britney, Cintasha, Brigid, Krystle, Rita, Kelechi, Jane, Jacquetta, Kynlon, another Megan, Kitchawa, and Dax. And of course Katherine (4), Kathryn, and Katie. I'm not sure whether some of these are men or women--I'll have to dig a little deeper. Let me know if you have any specific questions.

November 3, 2010 11:42 AM

Great post! Given the importance of names, I need help coming up with a name for our baby girl (due in Jan). We already have 4 year old twin boys named Elliott and Oliver. Our top three name choices for a girl are Hazel, Juliet, or Scarlett. Anyone have advice/opinions? Help!

November 3, 2010 1:02 PM

Congrats to another Laura on the good news and to hyz and NAMG on their new little ones!!

By Amy3
November 3, 2010 3:56 PM

@Chimu, of the listed names, I like all of them except Balendin.

@kathyjk22, we would have named our daughter Elliot had she been a boy and I really like Oliver. So considering what I would choose if I already had an Elliott and an Oliver, it would have to be 1. Hazel and then 2. Juliet. I don't care for Scarlett.

November 3, 2010 3:27 PM

@kathyjk22 - I'm wondering if Juliet is too close to Elliott. Maybe?

November 3, 2010 3:59 PM

zoerhenne: Whether or not kids turn out a certain way because of their name could be an interesting debate here. Because I'll tell you right now I never did "grow into" my name. My birth name is Christin@ P@trice (And to kmac77: people use symbols in place of letters here because it makes it difficult for people to stalk us on the internet should anyone ever type the name on google or something. It confused me for a while too.) Once I tell people who know me what my full name is, I always get the same reaction. There's always a long pause, then a snicker, then a comment like, "You're not Christin@ P@trice! That's way too prissy." So yeah, people's preceptions of a name doesn't always rub off on the kid.

re Nelson and Eddy: Another interesting debate here: does a beloved namesake trump the actual name? I think most people here would probably say no, but maybe I'm wrong. I'm very vehmenantly anti-family/friend namesake because of the family I grew up in, so even if they had a name that I loved I probably wouldn't us it.

November 3, 2010 5:01 PM

I don't really know why but dh doesn't seem to want to use family names - particularly for the boys. I've been pushing to use one of my dad's names but while he hasn't said that he doesn't want to I can tell he's not too excited by it. And he's not biased against my dad, he's been no more interested in using family names from his side.